Abortion Public Policy: What is the author's position and what is he/she doing with it? Why?



Peter J. Pappas

One of the challenges facing the Orthodox Christian in modern American society is discerning the relationship between personal ethical convictions and questions of public policy. If one of the responsibilities of American citizenship involves voting for state and federal officials who will create and execute the laws, decisions regarding how personal convictions will affect public policy cannot be avoided. In simply voting for a candidate for public office, one must responsibly consider the implications of one's decision and the impact it will have on public policy. The issue of abortion, without question the most divisive social issue in America today, presents special problems in the formation of the Christian conscience regarding respon- sible citizenship.

The Orthodox Church has consistently maintained an outspoken condemnation of abortion from apostolic times to the present. While the humanity of the unborn is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments, the oldest authoritative document that specifically condemns abortion is the Didache, which dates back to the early second century. Similar teach- ings appear in the writings of Athenagoras of Athens, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Jerome, and John Chrysostom. The scrip- tural, patristic and liturgical traditions form a consistent wit- ness recognizing the humanity of the unborn from conception and consistently identifying abortion as the killing of a human being. The loss of life of the unborn child was regretfully tolerated only in cases where the life of the mother was en- dangered.1 The Church's teaching on abortion took its most

1John Protopapas, "An Eastern Orthodox Christian Perspective on the Sanctity of Human Life," p. 1.



developed canonical form in Canon 91 of the Council in Trullo. This canon prescribed a penance of up to ten years excommunication, the same as that for a repentant murderer. Such penances have virtually disappeared today, the emphasis being on reconciliation with God and with the faith com- munity. Nevertheless, the ethical teachings of the Orthodox Church regarding abortion are clear and unambiguous.

To what extent these teachings should affect society at large needs further clarification. While the various Orthodox jurisdictions in America have not been silent on the issue, the lack of adequate explanations for these positions leads clergy and laity alike to adopt positions present in the popular culture which may not be informed by the consciousness of the Church. Thus, some maintain personal opposition to abor- tion as an immoral act, but do not believe the state should legislate against it.

This "pro-choice" position has become pivotal in the shaping of public opinion regarding the abortion issue. It has also been influential in the policies of Orthodox and Roman Catholic politicians who maintain personal opposition to abor- tion but do not wish to impose this view on others. While this position holds a certain attraction, it also reveals a fundamental confusion regarding the limits of reproductive freedom. In a poll conducted in 1989, seventy-four percent of the respondents agreed with the statement, "I personally feel that abortion is morally wrong, but I also feel that whether or not to have an abortion is a decision that has to be made by every woman for herself."2 In another poll conducted the same month, only forty-one percent agreed with the statement, "Personally I be- lieve abortion is wrong, but I think it should be legal."3 While this position has never been supported by any official declara- tion of any Orthodox body in America, it is a position which has been adopted by many of the faithful, clergy and laity alike. However, this position will be shown to be morally in- defensible in light of Orthodox Christian ethical teachings re- garding the sanctity of life and the responsibility of the Chris-

George Skelton, "Most Americans Think Abortion Is Immoral," Part 1, Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1989, p. 1.

sEthan Bronner, "Most in US favor ban on majority of abortions, poll finds," The Boston Globe, March 31, 1989, p. 12.

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tian to the state. Rather, Orthodox Christians should oppose abortion both on a personal level and seek its prohibition by the government. The ethical justification for this approach can be demonstrated by an examination of the presuppositions which underlie Christian ethical teachings on abortion, the responsibili- ties of the state in light of Christian Tradition, and the history of the abortion controversy in the United States.

Of primary importance to Christian ethical teaching on abortion is the principle of the sanctity of human life and creation in the image and likeness of God. Both these prin- ciples underlie the historic ethical teaching on abortion, eutha- nasia, and infanticide. To uphold the sanctity of life means affirming that human life possesses an intrinsic sacred quality which mandates its preservation and maintenance. While a sacred category of existence requires a religious foundation, purely secular societies can also use terminology derived from religious presuppositions which may have since been abandoned. Thus, reference to the sanctity of human life in the popular culture means that it has intrinsic value or worth. A system of ethics which upholds the sanctity of life will advocate the unconditional value and equality of all human life and will seek to advance its well being even in the face of conflicting values.

Frequently placed in contradistinction to the sanctity of life is a "quality of life" ethic. Such an approach seeks to evaluate the worth of a particular human life based on the quality of existence the person experiences. Thus, at its best, the quality of life ethic seeks to improve the lives of people by taking into consideration a number of factors. Ethical choices should increase their ability to participate in relationships and activities which give expresson to meaningful membership in the human community. Related factors include adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, and an environment which allows for the pursuit of meaning, purpose, and happiness without fear of persecution or other circumstances which would detract from these aims. However, when this concern for quality is placed in opposition to the sanctity of life, the resulting choices ultimately cheapen the value of life and place in danger the ability to pursue such goals as those stated above. Quality of


life is an ambiguous concept which frequently depends for its definition on a subjective evaluation of human life and what constitutes a meaningful existence. Christians recognize that quality of life consists in a relationship with the Holy Trinity which allows for growth toward the image and likeness of God through the saving acts of Christ in the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."4 In a contemporary secular society, those making decisions regarding quality of life would for the most part not share this perspective. Therefore, the affirmation of the sanctity of life is necessary as a basis for the proper treat- ment of human life both in personal relationships and for the maintenance of a just and well ordered society.

Human life derives its sacred character from its creation in the image and likeness of God. The Biblical account of creation affirms this belief: "God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."5 This doctrine is foundational for the Chris- tian faith and provides the basis for resolving ethical questions involving human life. Orthodoxy affirms that even after sin entered the world, the image of God, while distorted, remained as a characteristic of the human person and that human moral capacities were not completely obliterated. Through sin, human beings have broken communion with God and thus have in some degree become "less than human." Because all human beings share this state, full human "personhood" cannot be a criterion for determining the value of one's life. All life has intrinsic worth as being because it is created in the image and likeness of God.

The idea of sanctity of life, to varying degrees, also ap- pears in natural law. The Orthodox Church accepts and teaches the reality of a natural moral law which may be discerned through experience and reason, and through which the funda- mental rules and laws of human moral and social life are acknowledged.6 When various cultures of diverse times and

4John 10:10b, Holy Bible: The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984).

SGenesis 1:27. 6Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life (Minneapolis: Light and

Life Publishing Company, 1983), p. 120.

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places adopt similar standards of behavior, this is an indication of a common moral sense among people derived from faith, reason, and experience. For example, nearly every human culture in recorded history has been characterized by laws against murder. While some cultures condone or even enjoin murder, the condoned murder tends to be highly selective. Murder may be approved for one's enemies but not for mem- bers of the group themselves.7 Biological science also illustrates some aspects of natural law at its most basic level. Living or- ganisms make attempts of immense magnitude to stay alive and reproduce. Thus, a universal law of self-preservation manifests itself in nature. So strong is this instinct, in fact, that one of the goals of Christian life is to subdue this desire and channel it into acts of self sacrifice on behalf of others. In terms of human reproduction, the force of nature is even more astonish- ing. While a fertile female produces one egg per month, during intercourse the male releases between thirty and sixty million sperm toward the target egg to increase the chances of fer- tilization. The fertilized egg must then survive a myriad of crisis stages, including implantation, development, and birth, before a child can be born. The struggle to produce a healthy living baby is one of the most amazing feats of nature, which includes a system of human reproduction that promotes the survival of the species.8 In the case of abortion, the natural process is interrupted by the willful act of one of its own kind, frustrating the cycle of nature's survival mechanisms. Thus, a number of sources of natural law testify to the sanctity of human life.

The sanctity of life created in the image and likeness of God has historically provided the Church's basis for the pro- scription of abortion, which previously was accepted in some ancient societies. The practice of abortion was widespread in ancient Greece and was usually allowed by the law, which even prescribed it in certain cases. The medical community op- posed the practice, and so the Hippocratic Oath required physicians to bind themselves not to give women poisonous drinks which would abort the fetus they were carrying. In

7R. C. Sproul, Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1990), p. 41.

8Sproul, pp. 43, 44.


ancient Rome the father had power of life and death over his family. The fetus was not regarded as a person, and abortion was widely practiced in Roman society. An exception to the frequent practice of abortion in antiquity was found among the Jews. Despite the absence of a specific prohibition of abor- tion in their scriptures, research has discovered no mention of a nontherapeutic Jewish abortion in any text of Jewish literature through A.D. 500.9 The early Roman Empire continued the an- cient Roman policy and prescribed no punishment for abortion with the consent of the father, unless the mother died.

This was the context in which the early Church formulated its teaching. The Didache as well as the Epistle of Barnabas give absolute strictures against abortion and refer to the fetus simply as a "child." In the second century, Athenagoras out- lines the common, accepted Christian position that abortion is murder, that the guilty must give account to God, and that the fetus is a living being.10 The late second and early third centuries give evidence of an increasing Christian effect on Roman law concerning abortion. Through the witness of Chris- tians, many pagans were acquainted with their ethical per- spective, which was similar to that of some pagan moralists. Christian apologists such as Athenagoras and Tertullian had addressed Roman emperors and governors concerning the stand- ard Christian view.11 When the empire enacted laws restricting abortion in the third century, including the prescript of Septimus Severus and Antonios Caracalla and the application of the Lex Cornelia to abortifacient drugs and drug dealers, it was quite likely due to the growing Christian population's influence on public opinion toward punishing abortion and promoting life. For Clement of Alexandria, an abortion of one child is a contribution to the destruction of the entire human race.12

Likewise, both Basil the Great and John Chrysostom equate abortion with murder. It is true, as Vigen Guroian points out, that these statements have a unique context and purpose:

9Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 33.

10Gorman, p. 54. ^Gorman, p. 61. 12John Kowalczyk, An Orthodox View of Abortion (Minneapolis: Light

and Life, 1979), p. 14.

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In point of fact, the statements about abortion in the letters of St Basil or the homilies of St John Chrysostom were not intended to be metaphysical pronouncements about the beginnings of human life. Nor are they statements about basic human rights in the profoundest sense, leave aside the shallow nominalistic and voluntaristic way in which our soci- ety has come to define human rights. They are pri- marily exhortations directed to a specific community about what kind of a people it is and what behavior is or is not fitting with its identity as the bride of Christ and the sacrament of the Kingdom of trinitarian love open to all life.13

However, their statements are nonetheless applicable to the present discussion because the issue of abortion in the social context raises the question as to what kind of community is or is not to be promoted by the civil authorities and what be- haviors are or are not appropriate for any civilized people. The danger Guroian points out is that regarding many issues of public policy, the Orthodox Church runs the risk of accom- modating itself to the "common faith" of American civil re- ligion. The basic doctrine of this perspective asserts that there exist individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of hap- piness which are of absolute public concern, while other tran- scendent questions regarding human relationships with God and with each other are only of relative legitimacy and have no place in public discourse. Thus, the faithful must view their position in terms of a prophetic call to adherence to basic truths of which the Church is the guardian.

Issues of church and state were not absent even from the ministry oï Christ. He spent much of His time dispelling the notion of the zealots that the messiah was to be an earthly ruler who would end Roman occupation of Palestine and es- tablish a theocratic state. Thus it was a supreme irony that Jesus was crucified by the Romans because he viewed Himself as a King and was seen as a threat to the civil authorities.

13Vigen Guroian, Incarnate Love (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), p. 126.


Because the Gospel presents itself as the politeuma, the com- munity of the coming age, it must accordingly see as its most intrinsic concern its disposition toward the present polis, the secular state.14 St Paul provides a clear summary of the char- acter and purpose of the state:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the author- ity? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.15

At the same time, Paul does not advocate an uncritical par- ticipation in the institutions of the state. Thus, in another passage, he asks the believers in Corinth, "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the un- righteous, and not before the saints?"16 While St Paul recog- nizes the legitimate authority of the state and instructs the be- lievers in Rome to do the same, he exhorts the Corinthians not to avail themselves of this authority, even though it is within the sphere of competence of the state to make judg- ments. A unique set of methods and attitudes based on values such as love and mercy should differentiate the Christian com- munity from secular institutions. Furthermore, in the end God's people will stand in judgment of the principalities and powers which stand behind the institutions and authorities of this world.

The Gospel does not confuse the kingdom of God with the state according to any theocratic ideal, and given the eschato- logical nature of the kingdom, it sees a certain tension between

14Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956), p. 4.

15Romans 13:1-4. 161 Corinthians 6:1.

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the earthly state and the heavenly kingdom. However, it does not reflect an ontological dualism between the Church and the world. The relationship found in the New Testament is a chronological tension between now and the future which af- fects the Christian's attitude toward the state. While the state is not divine in essence, it is willed by God as an instrument for the present age. The earthly state is God's servant so long as it remains in the order which is willed by God.17 This order entails the ability to discern good and evil and the use of methods appropriate to its function to restrain evil. Hence the Christian must be obedient to the state while maintaining a critical stance toward it to see that it remains in the divine order. When its laws become unjust, the Christian must seek revision of these laws. When it commands what God has for- bidden or forbids what God has commanded, then the Chris- tian must disobey. Therefore, a Christian can remain obedient to any state up to the point where it becomes totalitarian.

While Orthodox Christians throughout history have some- times confused the politeuma with the earthly state, such as in the Byzantine empire or in Czarist Russia, the Church has never endorsed any particular form of government. However, the Byzantine concept of the symphonia has often been a guid- ing principle in the relationship between church and state. The theory of symphonia envisions a system of harmony and mutu- ality between church and state which is based on the sufficiency and independence of the two cooperating principles within one common society, without the subjugation oï one to the other. This harmony is based on the belief that both church and state are instituted by one Lord: the church "to initiate the Kingdom of God and to prepare for its eschatological realization" and the state "to serve the worldly needs of humanity, providing order, peace, justice and external harmony."18 This concept provides a historical perspective which can inform contem- porary reflection on the relationship of church and state. Given contemporary social realities this idea can never be realized in its fullness, nor would it be desirable. As John Meyendorff has pointed out, the Constantinian period out of which it

17Cullmann, p. 89. 18Stanley S. Harakas, "Orthodox Church-State Theory and American

Democracy," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 21 (1976), p. 401.


emerged was characterized by two fundamental theological flaws: "in thinking that the authority of Christ could be iden- tified with the political power of the state, and in considering that the universality of the Gospel is defineable in political terms."19 At the same time, Christians must also avoid the doctrine of strict separation which seeks to silence the voice of the Church on matters of public policy. This doctrine implies an ontological dualism between the Church and the world, while the Gospel reflects a chronological and ethical tension. The separation doctrine perpetrates the secular notion that the world really does not need the Church or God.20 Thus the Church must act in a spirit of obedience but must also main- tain a critical posture toward the state.

At the same time, in a pluralistic setting such as the United States, it is impossible to resolve public policy issues solely on religious grounds. A precedent of translating purely religious doctrine into public policy would allow this to occur in a number of different areas where the dominant religious groups may want a particular version of scientific creationism taught in the public schools which would be sectarian in nature. Another example would be the unconditional support for the state oï Israel advocated by many Christians based on a dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture. Consequently, something other than a religious definition of when human life begins is needed as the basis for legislation.

Human life is defined spiritually and philosophically in a multitude of different ways. Therefore, a biological defini- tion of human life provides the only basis for enacting legisla- tion. Any organism would clearly have to meet three criteria to determine whether human life is present: Is this being alive? Is this being human? And is this being complete? At no time during the entire period of gestation are any of these require- ments lacking in the prenatal human life. This being has the characteristics of life. That is, the prenatal human life can reproduce his or her own cells and develop them into a specific

19John Meyendorff, Living Tradition (Crestwood: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), p. 143.

20Guroian, p. 159.

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pattern of maturity and function.21 This is a unique being, distinguishable totally from any other organism, completely human in all of his or her characteristics, including a genetically unique set of 46 human chromosomes. Life is clearly present in the fertilized ovum and at subsequent stages of development.

Once it has completed the process of implantation, at the end of the second week, the embryo can only develop into a human being. Before this time, it can become a hydatidiform mole, a product of an abnormal fertilization which is formed of placental tissue.22 However, the fact that an abnormal fer- tilization may occur which is only evident after the fact does not reduce the humanity of the normal zygote which is pres- ent from fertilization. Similarly, a large percentage of zygotes die before implantation and a significant number are lost after- wards through miscarriage due to severe chomosomal abnor- malities. This does not reduce their humanity, but simply re- veals a high mortality rate for this stage of life. Therefore, the prenatal life is distinctly human.

This being is also complete. Nothing new will be added from the time of fertilization except growth and development of what is already there at the beginning.23 The zygote does require genetic information from the maternal mitochondria, and the maternal or paternal genetic messages in the form of messenger RNA or proteins.24 However, this information is conveyed through interaction with the molecules already pres- ent in the zygote. Therefore, this fact does not reduce the humanity of the zygote from the completion of conception. A critical finding of modern biology is that conception is a process beginning with the penetration of the outer layer of the egg by a sperm and concluding with the formation of the diploid set of chromosomes, a process that takes about a day. Thus one cannot properly speak of a "moment of conception."25

However, both fertilization and conception have traditionally 21 John C. Willke, Abortion Questions and Answers (Cincinnati: Hayes

Publishing Co., 1985), p. 52. 22Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, "Reflections on the Moral

Status of the Pre-embryo" Theological Studies 51 (1990), p. 608. ^Willke, p. 53. ^Shannon and Wolter, p. 608. 25Shannon and Wolter, p. 610.


been identified with the union of the sperm and ovum. Con- sequently, even though it refers to a process that takes several hours, conception is recognized as the beginning of a new human life because the three above stated criteria are present beginning at this point. Viability, that is, the ability to survive outside the mother's body, is of no value in determining the beginning of human life. Improvements in medical technology are continually moving backward the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb. Thus, at best, viability is an imprecise measure of current technological capabilities, not a measure of the human capacities of the fetus.

In 1981 the United States Senate conducted extensive hearings (8 days, 57 witnesses) on the proposed "Human Life Bill." The official Senate report states:

Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception [they defined fertilization and conception to be the same] marks the beginning of the life of a human being—a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agree- ment on this point in countless merical, biological, and scientific writings.26

The report lists a limited sample of 13 medical textbooks, all of which state categorically that the life of an individual human begins at conception. The report then quotes several authorities who testified personally:

Professor J. Lejeune, Paris, discoverer of the chromo- some pattern of Down's Syndrome: "Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception."

Professor W. Bowes, University of Colorado: Beginning of human life?—"at conception."

Professor H. Gordon, Mayo Clinic: "It is an established fact that human life begins at conception."

Professor M. Matthews-Roth, Harvard Univer- sity: "It is scientifically correct to say that individual human life begins at conception."

sewülke, p. 40.

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Dr. Leon Rosenberg, from Yale University, stated that he knew no scientific evidence showing when actual human life begins. But he then defined human life in a philosophic way, and spoke to a value judgment. To quote the Senate report:

Those witnesses who testified that science cannot say whether unborn children are human beings were speaking in every instance to the value question rather than the scientific question. No witness raised any evidence to refute the biological fact that from the moment of human conception there exists a dis- tinct individual being who is alive and is of the human species.27

Abortion advocates decry the "biological reductionism" in this argument because, as one writer states, "the beginning of human life is not the issue, for it can be argued that fetuses, even if they are 'human life,' are still not human persons"2* The same writer states, "The doctrine of fetal personhood is morally of- fensive from a feminist, socialist, and humanist standpoint be- cause what makes human Ufe distinct is its capacity for con- sciousness and sociability."29 Since "personhood" is frequently defined by subjective criteria, legal definitions must be based on the biological evidence and previous legal precedent. Thus, as former President Ronald Reagan correctly stated, "The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life?"30

A synthesis of these Biblical, patristic, historical, and canonical formulations in light of contemporary social and political realities and scientific evidence will yield a number of principles which are readily applicable to sanctity of life issues. The state is instituted by God to promote good and to restrain evil. The church and the state not only have different

27Wfflke, P. 42. 28Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, Abortion and Woman's Choice (Boston:

Northeastern University Press, 1990), p. 341. 29Petchesky, p. 345. 30Ronald Reagan, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation (Nash-